Monday, January 31, 2011

New Boss Same As The Old Boss?

No, not quite.

But close enough for government work.

Faith On The Hill: The Religious Composition of the 112th Congress (The Pew Forum On Religion & Public Life; Jan 6)

Many analysts described the November 2010 midterm elections as a sea change, with Republicans taking control of the U.S. House of Representatives and narrowing the Democratic majority in the Senate. But this political overhaul appears to have had little effect on the religious composition of Congress, which is similar to the religious makeup of the previous Congress and of the nation, according to an analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life.

The 112th Congress, like the U.S. public, is majority Protestant and about a quarter Catholic. Baptists and Methodists are the largest Protestant denominations in the new Congress, just as they are in the country as a whole.

A few of the country’s smaller religious groups, including Episcopalians, Presbyterians and Jews, have greater numerical representation in Congress than in the general population. Some others, including Buddhists and Muslims, are represented in Congress in roughly equal proportion to their numbers in the adult U.S. population. And some small religious groups, such as Hindus and Jehovah’s Witnesses, are not represented at all in Congress.

Perhaps the greatest disparity between the religious makeup of Congress and the people it represents, however, is in the percentage of the unaffiliated – those who describe their religion as atheist, agnostic or “nothing in particular.” According to information gathered by CQ Roll Call and the Pew Forum, no members of Congress say they are unaffiliated. By contrast, about one-sixth of U.S. adults (16%) are not affiliated with any particular faith. Only six members of the 112th Congress (about 1%) do not specify a religious affiliation, which is similar to the percentage of the public that says they don’t know or refuses to specify their faith....

My local paper recently ran a story about this report.

It mentioned that the religious composition of Congress hadn't changed much in the wake of the last election but failed to say anything at all about how severely under-represented non-religious Americans continue to be.

That's not just a case of burying the headline - it's a case of exorcising it completely.

Does this mean that non-religious Americans are under-represented in the editorial offices of our newspapers as well?

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Monday, January 24, 2011

My Oddest Attic Adventure

"I wonder if your current home has an attic which you've explored, and if so, if it at least partially satisfied that heightened curiosity in you?" - ChrisClicks (January 14, 2011 4:25 AM; Riding The Merry-Go-Round Of Time)

The attic of my current house is little more than an overhead crawlspace. I think I've stuck my head up into it only two or three times in the 10 years I've lived here. It's not the sort of space I have much desire to see more of - which is a good thing, considering how difficult the small access panel in a small closet is to get to.

The good news is that my attic curiosity was pretty much sated while I was still living in my first neighborhood. Before I was 10 years old I'd had the good fortune of actually making my way into the attics of no fewer than three nearby houses - all of them big, intriguing spaces, and all of them made easily accessible by permanent full staircases.

The first and most intriguing attic I wormed my way into belonged to the house almost directly across the street from the apartment I lived in.

Here's what it looked like in about 1945 (some 20 years before I first set foot in it):

My own landlord also owned this house (as well as about 5 other properties in the area, including The Big House with The Tower that I've written about before and his own residence about six houses to the left of this picture). City records tell me he owned it from 1936 until 1974, but....

In the early 1960s he tried to sell it to a man with a wife, a few kids, and some Big Plans. The man had been renting it for awhile. At some point he thought it made sense to buy it and turn the detached garage behind it into a barber shop. All that remained of the garage was a knee-high foundation and a disintegrating slab floor, though, so it was beyond my young imagination to envision exactly how this might come to pass. As things turned out, it never did.

Apparently the man liked to drink. Apparently he had a temper. Apparently when he was drinking and his temper got the best of him, he would sometimes beat his wife. During one night of drinking, circa the spring or summer of 1964, the man pursued his long-suffering wife throughout the house and finally up the stairs to the attic. When nothing she could say or do persuaded him to desist, she jumped out the attic window that faced our apartment - i.e., the attic window on the right side in the photo above.

Our landlord and his wife told us that the only thing that saved her life was the grass patiently waiting for her in the night some three stories down.

We were home that night, but heard nothing. Not the screams. Not the sirens. Not a thing. We all peacefully slumbered on while this hellish little drama played out on a stage set I'd spent many hours scanning from our front windows on much calmer days. People couldn't understand how we might have been able to sleep through all this, but in retrospect it's not that hard to explain. We lived halfway between two nearby hospitals. Rescue squads and fire trucks were frequent travelers on the busy road perhaps 10 feet beyond our front door as well as on nearby Cherry St. Police runs were even more common. If we hadn't learned how to sleep through sirens, we probably wouldn't have slept at all.

It wasn't long after the woman decided jumping out the attic window was preferable to being with the man she loved that both the man and the woman and their kids moved away. The sale was off. The remnants of the detached garage would never be a barber shop. And my landlord set about the task of getting the house they'd left behind ready for a new tenant or buyer.

A routine was established. My landlord would run the hardware store below our apartment all day, then walk home for dinner. After eating he'd go to the house across the street from me to work on it, or maybe cut the grass. When I saw him over there, I'd go visit. He was remarkably tolerant of these visits. As a result, I became addicted to the aroma of fresh plaster and paint and cut wood.

I also got to explore the 6-bedroom house that I'd been staring at from across the street for as long as I could remember.

The attic of course proved irresistible.

The staircase that went up to it was kind of tucked away on the second floor. The westernmost part of the second floor was a flat, black roof porch - no railings. Inside, just to the east of that porch, was a kind of second kitchen. In the northeast corner of that kitchen was a doorway, and beyond it were the stairs to the attic. Stairs that took one up and to the south with each step....

The attic itself was just a big square with about the same footprint as the house. No insulation could be seen as I looked up and around - only steeply pitched dark wood and rafters. Four sets of windows were set in the exact center of the four sides of the square - each set rather smallish and just above the level of the bare wooden floor.

As my landlord went about whatever work brought him - and me - up there, I naturally gravitated to the windows that faced my own home.

It was odd looking out and seeing that home after having spent so much time looking at the spot I was now looking out of. I still couldn't see the roof I slept under - a flat black roof that I would never see - but seeing my home from a new perspective was still pretty exciting. I savored the moment.

And I tried to imagine what would drive anyone to open the window I was seated in front of and jump.

My young mind wasn't up to the task.

Neither is the mind I have today.

And how anyone could survive such a jump remains a profound mystery....

I'm not sure how long I sat there, pondering things, but it was long enough to leave an indelible impression. I suppose visitors to the 6th floor window of the Texas School Book Depository in Dallas might know the sort of impression I'm talking about. I suppose they know the kind of pointless speculations and attempts at empathy that float through a mind struggling to comprehend the nature and site of a horrendous event, too. Things seem so calm and peaceful while one is there. It's ultimately impossible to reconcile that calm and peace with the very different moments one knows rolled over that very spot like a tsunami not all that long ago.

Who knows how many similar tsunamis have without our knowledge rolled over all the other now calm and peaceful spots around us today?

Who knows which of today's calm and peaceful spots are destined to be swamped by horrendous events without any warning tomorrow?

I don't suppose many parents would encourage their young children to visit such attics and ponder such events, but I'm personally glad I had the opportunity.

I'm also glad that I was recently able to find the obituary of the man with Big Plans. Turns out that he was a big WWII hero - someone who had rescued his shipmates in the Pacific after a particularly effective Japanese attack. He and his wife had gone on to have 9 kids. He was remembered as a loving husband and a good Catholic. No mention was made of the time he chased his beloved out an attic window. Just a reminder I guess that as bad as the world can seem in the newspaper accounts of it, the actual reality of the world can be much worse....

But time moves on, erasing even the worst aspects of reality right along with the good.

Here's a view of the house from just a few years ago, somewhat the worse for wear:

And here's a recent view of the same area:

Maybe new dreams and happier memories will eventually unfold on this site, but I wouldn't bet on that happening anytime soon....

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Background Noise

----- Only 1.4% of Americans moved to another state last year. That's the lowest rate since 1948. ("Do your part to boost the rate - move to another state TODAY!" is a bumper sticker I'd love to have.)

----- Neurosurgeons with 10 years of experience make about $600,000 a year. Oil traders with 10 years of experience make at least $1 million a year. (Four-star generals with 34 years in the military can expect to earn about $185,000, plus all the medals their chests can support.)

----- 16% of Ohio's public school students have been diagnosed as gifted. (I wonder how many have been diagnosed as re-gifted....)

----- 10% of Americans are now renting storage lockers. There are more than 50,000 storage facilities scattered across the country. These facilities will earn about $22 billion this year. (If my experience is typical, maybe they ought to rename these facilities "temporary landfills"....)

----- The average swimming pool costs $1500 a year to maintain. (Having trouble making ends meet? Maybe you ought to consider draining your pool and using it to store all the stuff you have in a storage locker.)

----- Just 11.9% of American workers belong to a union now. That's the lowest rate in some 70 years. Slightly more than half of all unionized Americans have a job in the public sector. (Does this increase or decrease the odds of my local police department out-sourcing its investigative duties to India?)

----- Drug companies typically spend twice as much on marketing as they do on research. (Not sure how they categorize the money spent on research into new ways of marketing.)

----- There are 45,000 Chinese restaurants in the US. (That's somewhat fewer than the number of storage facilities - but you knew that already, right?)

----- 51% of the population of Haiti is under 21.

----- There are now more than 9000 Zambonis roaming the earth. Each one travels about 2000 miles a year. A single Zamboni might travel 3 miles during the course of one hockey game. (A married Zamboni never travels.)

----- Wal-Mart now sells about 25% of all the groceries sold in the US. (They'd probably sell even more if people with an irrational fear of Zambonis had the courage to leave their homes.)

----- 68% of Ohioans heat their homes with natural gas; 20% heat with electricity; 7% rely on propane; 3% use oil; about 2% use wood. Oil has rapidly declined in popularity even though some 5% of every gallon comes from soybeans. (If I could heat my home by burning tofu, I'd do it!)

----- If you're a typical penguin, you can expect to live about 20 years. (How long did they live before the invention of the Zamboni??)

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Four Moments In Time

5:26:26 PM - Jan 21, 2011

5:34:54 PM - Jan 21, 2011

5:37:58 PM - Jan 21, 2011

5:41:26 PM - Jan 21, 2011

Friday, January 21, 2011

Of Newspapers And Sunsets (But Mostly Newspapers)

I try to read my local newspaper every morning.

I also try to watch the sunset every evening.

After having done this for quite some time now, I've come to the conclusion that newspapers and sunsets are very different things.

The difference that intrigues me the most today is this: Sunsets change minute by minute, but not very much from year to year; newspapers change hardly at all minute to minute, but can change a great deal over the course of a few decades.

I was reminded of just how radically newspapers can change when I recently read quite a few old newspapers while trying to learn more about the places and people I grew up with.

Here are some of the changes I noticed:

----- The print quality used to be truly awful. The ink seems to have been spotty, the lines often crooked, and the font hard on the eyes. Deterioration associated with the passage of time hasn't helped, but it doesn't seem to be responsible for the majority of the ugliness that I'm finding. Even the artwork and graphics used in the ads seem relatively childish and unsophisticated compared to what we see today in high school publications. For what it's worth, it seems to me that things got significantly better after 1970.

----- There seems to have been a much greater emphasis on local news in prior decades. Chatty, even gossipy accounts of who was having dinner with whom seem to have been a regular feature. Coverage of a wide variety of social organizations and clubs seems to have been far more extensive than it is today. Local bowling leagues seem to have merited headlines on a par with those given nationally famous baseball and football teams. Even local miniature golf tournaments were accorded star treatment. National and international news, on the other hand, often seems to have been something of an afterthought.

----- Married women didn't just lose their maiden names when they married - they also lost their first names. Virtually every reference to a married woman that I came across referred to her as "Mrs. George Smith" or "Mrs. Thomas Jones" (or whatever). Makes me wonder if they all had tags around their necks so people would know who to return them to if they ever got lost.

----- Racism was pervasive and practiced without apology. Want ads commonly specified "White girl wanted for sales work" or "White cook wanted for cafe" or "White female offers babysitting in her home." Rental ads often emphasized "Whites only" or made sure prospective tenants knew that the landlord was white. People of color rarely, if ever, appeared in ads or news photos. The next time you hear Tom Brokaw prattle on about "The Greatest Generation", you might want to ask him about this.

----- Heat waves were big news in the days before air conditioning. The main story on one front page I found from the 1930s gave an hour-by-hour breakdown of the previous day's temperatures. Another story on the same front page told the story of one woman whom the heat had allegedly driven to murder her family with an ax. A third story told how a local man had allegedly been driven by the heat to commit suicide by climbing to the top of a huge oil tank, open the access door on top, then jump in. (What we today might dismiss as sensational tabloid journalism seems to have been mainstream journalism for many years.)

----- Polio was big news, too. Waves of illness apparently would sweep across America every year during Polio Season (which ran from July to November). When the first week of July 1954 came and went without a single case of polio being reported in the city of Toledo, it merited a special story. (That story ended by reminding mothers that they could help keep their children safe by discouraging them from swimming in muddy streams. Gee, who knew?)

----- Gambling was covered as a major vice. I repeatedly came across stories detailing raids on clubs and restaurants equipped with illegal slot machines. (One raid was trumpeted with huge page one headlines.) When three men were caught playing cards in a house on the block I grew up on, that merited a story, too. These stories seem to have disappeared by the time Ohio launched a lottery in the early 1970s. Now that Ohio has just approved the building of four casinos (including one in Toledo), such stories read like dispatches from another planet.

----- Almost completely absent from the old newspapers that I've examined: Reports of scientific and sociological studies. The local anecdote seems to have always had the power to trump even the broadest and most meticulous research generated by distant experts, but before the 1960s the local anecdote doesn't seem to have had any real competition.

----- Alas, what doesn't seem to have changed much at all are the daily accounts of the carnage generated by cars and guns. I don't think I've ever come across a single issue of a Toledo newspaper that doesn't contain a story or two about young lives lost in a midnight crash or a pedestrian mowed down after not looking both ways or about a man with a revolver making a felon of himself after sending a fellow human being (or three) to an early grave. I think it was on the very day that the terrible news out of Tucson started dominating the evening news broadcasts that I happened upon a 1933 story detailing how a man went to the old Moose Lodge at 316 Cherry Street to request placement in a Moose Retirement Home and how, upon being refused, the man whipped out a pistol and started firing. Why does this quintessential American "solution" to problems continue to surprise us in the least? How many times does even the slowest child have to touch a hot stove before he or she stops being shocked by its ability to burn and perhaps actually does something besides crying in response?

----- Of course some things really *do* get better with time (though you might have to stand back and look hard to see it). A 1965 ad for a simple AM transistor radio told me that it cost $18. According to the online Inflation Calculator that I was just able to check for free, that's the equivalent of $121 today. (And batteries weren't included!)

I suppose I could list many other differences I've noticed between old newspapers and new ones, but I'm afraid I don't have the time.

Instead, I'll end this entry by quickly mentioning one other difference between newspapers in general and today's sunset in particular: I'm never sure what time my next newspaper will come, but today's sunset will occur at 5:37 PM.

That's according to today's newspaper, anyway.

I plan on fact-checking it at my earliest opportunity.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Enjoying The Solstice Afterglow

So it's been about a month since the Winter Solstice and I'm happy to report that I'm still enjoying the afterglow.

That's partly because my new baby has perfectly adjusted to his new home atop the ledge just inside my front door. (Other than having to dust him about once a week, he's been no trouble at all!)

It's also because I splurged this past Solstice season and acquired something else for myself as well.

I wasn't expecting to be so extravagant, but... how could I not be when I entered a local Half-Price Books store during the last month of a long year of self-denial and found this?

In case it isn't obvious, that's the very first LP ever recorded by Julius Wechter and friends. Although it's far from their best work, it was still something that I've been looking to acquire for a long time. First times don't have to be great to be notable, after all. It's a proven fact that without first times, all subsequent times would be impossible!

Which isn't to say that this LP is completely lacking in charm. Far from it! But I do admit that much of that charm is front-loaded into the very first track, "Comin' in the Back Door" (which was actually released as a single). Although it's an instrumental track completely lacking in lyrics, I've always considered it to be one of the best renditions of the old tale of a drunk husband quietly sneaking into his house late at night, stepping on the cat's tail, falling into a stack of pots and pans, knocking over a china cabinet, setting fire to the couch, and then somehow regaining control of the situation and sneaking up the stairs and into bed while his wife slumbers on, none the wiser.

Side Two's "Acapulco 1922" recaptures some of this charm by opening the very same way before veering off in a very different direction - a startling development for those cynics who may have instantly suspected that the LP had been padded with the same song under two different names. Haha, cynics! (I.e., HAHA!)

Of course the main appeal of this 1964 LP for me is the fact that it's actually survived long enough to end up in my 21st century hands. That I found it at all in any condition is remarkable; that it is completely scratch-free staggers the imagination. Add to this the fact that Half-Price Books had a price on it of just $2.98 and, well, DOES life get any better than this? As it happens, it does - when one gets to the check-out counter and is informed that it just happens to be "Take An Additional 20% Off Day!"

Which means that I got this treasure for about $2.38 (plus tax).

It's things like this that give me hope of someday also acquiring Wechter's second release, "The Baja Marimba Band Rides Again!"

And maybe even the skill to play Henry Mancini's "Walk of the Baby Elephant" on a harmonica!

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Of Course Not Looking Has Its Problems, Too

A few days ago I told the story of my mysterious first neighbor and how my mother deeply regretted going out of her way to catch a glimpse of him.

My second neighbor - the one who rented the apartment right next to ours soon after the first had moved away - taught me how painful it can be *not* to catch a glimpse of something.

This neighbor was Mrs. Seymour, a dowdy, 60-something woman who seems to have been a perfect example of everything Jacqueline Kennedy was not. In retrospect, she seems to have been a living fossil from the 1940s with her dark, floral dresses and dark frame glasses and black "old lady" shoes. Taking her picture with color film would have more or less yielded the same result as taking her picture with black and white.

Her personality was pretty much as monochromatic. Although I can't recall her ever being particularly sad or angry, I also can't recall her ever smiling. Whatever hopes and desires, aspirations and regrets may have been bubbling in her head, her stoic poker face kept them hidden from me.

I suppose I had many months to study that face at length as she somehow or other ended up serving as my main babysitter during my pre-school years. Going to her adjacent apartment certainly was physically easy enough for me. Given my mother's lack of money and social skills, I remain utterly perplexed as to how the exact arrangements were ever made.

However they were made, the end result was that I was left in the exclusive care of Mrs. Seymour for a large part of most of those days that my mother was off to work and my much older sister was off to school.

"The Beverly Hillbillies" had recently debuted and won over Mrs. Seymour but not my mother (who seems to have never allowed it to play on our TV past the first few banjo notes). The Rooftop Singers's "Walk Right In" was playing on the radio. I was fascinated by the manila brown paper shades that adorned the front windows of our new neighbor, so like our own double-hung sash windows, yet so different thanks to those shades with the round pulls hanging from strings and thanks to the fact that the outside scene had been magically shifted several yards to the west.

As Mrs. Seymour watched her dull as dishwater afternoon soaps, I often stood at those windows, watching the somewhat more interesting real world going by. It at least had the advantage of being in color, though it might have been improved with a few commercial interruptions.

One day I stood and watched a "steam shovel" razing what I believe had been an ice cream parlor at the southwest corner of Central and Cherry (where the Marathon gas station would eventually be built, and where a Rally's restaurant stands now). The excitement of seeing such a destructive machine in action for the first time ever was offset a bit by the realization that I'd never gotten to taste any of the ice cream that had been served there over the years, and now I never would....

As it turned out, Mrs. Seymour was no stay at home granny. For each memory I have of being stuck in her apartment with her, I have another in which she is out and about and I'm being dragged along. At some point in her life (I have no idea now how early or late), a boy on a bicycle had run into her, leaving her with leg problems. I can recall going with her several times to see a doctor, apparently for these problems (though she always seemed to walk just fine to me).

I can recall trips to other places as well - places I never visited with anyone else, places that now exist as formative memories in the foundational levels of my mind - but the one I want to talk about today seems to have been her daughter's place.

Her daughter lived in a two-story house in a somewhat nicer part of town (perhaps somewhere off Sylvania Ave. a mile or two to our north). I seem to have sometimes been taken there when Mrs. Seymour had other things to attend to. The thing about the house that seems to have made the deepest impression on me involved the window of an upstairs bedroom. There was a large tree right outside that window, and its leafy branches almost brushed the screen and glass. It was one of the most unexpected and impressive things I'd ever seen. I think I ended up envying the girl (Mrs. Seymour's granddaughter?) whose room it was even though I might well have pitied her instead for not being able to watch steam shovels had I thought more deeply about it.

Mrs. Seymour's daughter seems to have been a quite normal-looking 30-something woman with short dark hair. On the visit I remember the best, however, she was sitting on a large chair in the living room in front of the TV, bundled up in an enormous quilt. I spent most of my time playing on the floor in front of her along with two or three other kids. I suppose at least one was her own daughter.

In any event, what made this visit so memorable was the fact that this woman had recently had stomach surgery. And it seems that almost as soon as I had arrived, she was promising to show all us kids her incision "in a little while"....

The minutes ticked by, as minutes are wont to do. This gave me time to ponder at length whether or not the aftermath of stomach surgery was something I really wanted to see. I tried to imagine what I might see. Having very little understanding of either the human body or modern medical practices, I envisioned her stomach being opened up like the top of a pumpkin being turned into a jack-o'lantern. Of course the opening would be where her belly had been and not on the top of her head, and the tangled guts that were exposed would be dark red and churning, not orange and static, but... close enough for my young mind.

For some reason, I imagined that her "top" had been thrown away, leaving her with a gaping cannonball-size hole in the middle of her front.

I tried to think of alternatives, but I couldn't. And the more vividly I tried to bring this one into focus, the sicker and more feverish I started to feel.

As time dragged on I think I started hoping that she'd forgotten her earlier offer. Of course she hadn't, and so long before I could make my escape she announced that the time had come for us kids to gather around and behold the handiwork of her surgeon.

As the other kids gleefully competed for the best viewing position, I think I slipped away to the front hall. Or maybe they all followed her into her first floor bedroom while I stayed behind in the living room. In any event, the end result was the same: The others looked while I didn't.

Within a matter of minutes it was over and the scene had returned to what it had been before.

I seem to have found myself second-guessing my decision not to look. The other kids didn't seem any worse off for having looked. And they seemed unable or unwilling to answer my shy questions about what they had seen.

When it came time for me to go back home, I think I asked about the possibility of a private viewing.

"Nope, sorry," the 30-something woman with short dark hair told me. "You had your chance. You should've stayed with the other kids when they looked."

And so that was that.

It was a relief, in a way.

But something of a curse, too.

For as bad as the sight of a stitched-up incision may have been, the imaginary sight cooked up by my feverish brain was probably worse.

If I'm lucky, perhaps I will have forgotten it by the time I'm 90....

Such is life. You're born, you immediately get busy going about your business as best you can, and before too long, without any discernible reason or warning, you find that some horrible aspect of existence is brushing up against you. Do you turn and look? Or do you turn away? There are advantages and disadvantages to both courses of action, but it's impossible to say exactly what those might be in any particular case until after the fact.

Bottom Line (in my estimation): Unless you were lucky enough to be born into a world that doesn't contain anything horrible, you're basically screwed.

Please accept my deepest sympathies.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Three More Moments In Time

4:38:28 PM - Jan 16, 2011

4:56:38 PM - Jan 6, 2011

5:09:24 PM - Jan 16, 2011

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Should We Try To Screw Our Way To Prosperity?

That's not a question I've given much thought to in my life - but after reading this article that I recently found while researching something else, I feel terribly ashamed that I haven't.

The Toledo News-Bee (July 21, 1930; p. 2)

If you aren't feeling terribly selfish and ashamed now, too, maybe you need to read that again with an open mind and a receptive heart, then get down on your knees and beg Jesus to forgive you for your slacker breeding habits.

And don't let any facts distract you on your way down!

Especially not facts like these:

The Fifteenth United States Census, conducted by the Census Bureau one month from April 1, 1930, determined the resident population of the United States to be 122,775,046, an increase of 13.7 percent over the 106,021,537 persons enumerated during the 1920 Census. (Wikipedia)

Maybe if women had embraced even looser morals in the Roaring '20s, that whole Great Depression thing of the 1930s could have been avoided, eh?

That's not exactly the sort of message I'd expect to hear delivered at a convention of devout Catholics, but then I'm the type of person who still can't quite believe priests can actually get up in front of a crowd and say all that stuff about the bread and the wine with a straight face, either.

Of course there are other problems one must be careful to ignore if one is going to do what needs to be done.

If Dr. Muenzer is right when he says that the Great Depression would never have happened in a country of 152,000,000 consumers, why have we been suffering through the Great Recession these last few years even though the US Census Bureau says we now have over 307,000,000?

Just how many babies do I have to make in order to guarantee a job for every man, woman, and child who wants one??

I don't know...

I just don't know....

But I think maybe we all better go to bed early tonight and start saving up our strength for the selfless task that lies before us and every other American patriot willing to bear any burden and pay any price to return our economy to health.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

My First Neighbor

The first neighbor I can remember living next to wasn't the lady who took me to the Moose Lodge with her and (later on) tried to convince me why I didn't really want to go up into the attic we shared but she alone controlled access to.

My first neighbor - the one who seems to have been living in the apartment right next to ours when we moved in some two years before the Cuban Missile Crisis - was a man.

I can't recall ever seeing him myself.

But my mother did.


And she seems to have regretted it for the rest of her life.

He was a single guy who kept to himself.

In fact, he seems to have avoided going out entirely except at night.

And those furtive nocturnal excursions were generally limited to our common back porch.

It was an old wooden porch, painted grey. Grey roof, grey floors, grey side panels, grey posts. It faced north, so its greyness was never intruded upon by the sun. All the same, it *was* a porch, and I eventually learned to enjoy standing on it and pondering the extent and nature of the alley behind my home. But this pondering of mine never, ever happened at night.

A short common back hallway led from our apartment's back door and our neighbor's to this porch, which ran most of the width of the building. The east end of the porch was open and stopped just short of one of our bedroom windows, allowing us to enjoy some light even on the darkest days. An enclosed stairwell at the northwest corner cast our neighbor's bedroom window in perpetual gloom.

Anyone on the porch could easily approach and stare into either apartment's bathroom window despite its relative smallness and height if that is how they wanted to spend their time.

Of course this arrangement also made it easy for anyone inside an apartment to stare out at anyone on the porch.

Which is what my mother decided to do one night when she heard our mysterious neighbor creep out his back door (the mirror image of ours) and then down the short hallway.

My mother had to climb into our ancient claw-footed bathtub and carefully part the plastic curtains to get a glimpse, but she was young then and agile enough to engage in such undertakings without too much risk to life or limb.

What she seems to have seen was a relatively young man smoking a cigarette.

And staring off into the night, pondering.

It was only when he unexpectedly turned that she noticed his hideous deformity.

The story - as I eventually heard it - was that he'd once had a job spray-painting autos and trucks. The spray had somehow gotten into his eye. The eye had turned cancerous. Apparently there wasn't much that could be done for such things back then. Perhaps there isn't much that can be done now. In any case, the disease and/or the treatment had left an eye and at least half his face freakishly deformed - a modern-day Elephant Man trapped in a world becoming more and more enamoured with beauty and glamour.

Had my mother had even an ounce of imagination in her or ever been inclined to tease, I would have long ago dismissed this story as sheer invention - the sort of thing mischievous old uncles use to torment youngsters who will live so much longer than they will.

Alas, my mother had nothing of the mischievous uncle about her. On the very rare occasions when she told this story, it was obvious that she was first and foremost tormenting herself.

This First Neighbor of mine doesn't seem to have stayed long.

But the impression one stolen glimpse of him made on my mother turned out to be more or less permanent.

I guess the fact that I'm writing this some 50 years later means that that glimpse made a more or less permanent impression on me, too....

We just never know who's living next to us until we find out, do we?

And I guess sometimes it's a good thing that we never do.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Things I Learned Recently Without Even Trying

----- The tradition of the January "White Sale" dates back to 1878. That's when Philadelphia's John Wanamaker thought it up as a way to sell more linens during a slow sales season. (I don't know who thought it was a good idea to bring back 1970s-era neon green sheets but I sure needed to come home and lay down on my bed for awhile after recently seeing them again.)

----- The US has conducted more than 1000 nuclear tests. (None were conducted in any of Hawaii's five counties.)

----- 12,000 Americans go to the emergency room every year to be treated for holiday decorating accidents. (So always don goggles BEFORE decking your halls!)

----- As I type this, about 450,000 bison are out there wandering the American landscape. That compares to less than 1000 a century ago. Ted Turner owns the most (55,000). Some 92,000 bison get eaten every year. (That compares to more than 92,000 cattle each and every day.)

----- The average Cadillac buyer is 62-years-old. The average Lincoln buyer is 64. (And odds are that neither buyer is familiar with how to use a turn signal.)

----- If you happen to be talking to Queen Elizabeth and she's reached the point where she can no longer stand your long-winded stories, she allegedly switches her handbag from one hand to the other. That's the signal for her handlers to come rescue her. If she wants them to rescue her for you fast, she'll allegedly spin one of her rings. (If she hits you with her handbag, please take the hint and move along before she sics her nasty little corgis on you.)

----- December bird counters in 1970 counted just 807 robins in all of Ohio. Last year they counted 33,909. Apparently the planting of non-native fruit-bearing trees and shrubs (such as honeysuckle) have enticed robins to stay long past their old migration times. This can lead to mass die-offs if sudden bouts of severe winter weather strike. (No word on whether or not the proliferation of senior discounts is having a similar impact on elderly humans who usually spend their winters in Florida.)

----- The next time you start thinking of yourself as something special, remember this: You are! Vertebrates comprise just 5% of all described animals species.

----- Sonic booms generated by Israeli air force pilots are allegedly awakening the mating instincts of crocodiles during what's usually their prime hibernation time. Apparently the crocodiles are mistaking these sonic booms for the mating calls of competing males. (If you suspect you're dating a crocodile and you want to get him in the mood for love, you might want to try farting *very* loudly. Preferably while I'm far, far away.)

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Riding The Merry-Go-Round Of Time

I don't know what others think about when they think about Time, but today... today I think it's a kind of merry-go-round... a merry-go-round clock that takes us past the same places again and again, but those places are all a bit different with each pass.

For the first 20 years or so of my life, it felt as if I had a seat on the painfully slow-moving hour hand. Each new school year stretched out before me like an eternity. When I was in third grade, I couldn't imagine ever being as big or sophisticated as the kids in the sixth grade classroom on the other side of the building. Some hours in my own third grade classroom seemed to last an eternity. I can distinctly remember being told one day that my aunt would be coming by in ten minutes to pick us up at our home to take us to hers and then feeling as if those ten minutes would never, ever come to an end....

For the second 20 years of my life, it felt as if I was riding the minute hand. Although Time still seemed to drag occasionally (such as when I was terribly sick and each minute seemed to contain an eternity of torture), it also seemed to occasionally whiz by (such as when I was spending the last few minutes with a close friend in college just before the start of a long summer break). By and large, however, Time seemed to be moving along just as it should be - fast enough to satisfy my need for new experiences, but not so fast that those experiences were here and gone before I'd adequately explored and enjoyed them.

Now that I'm well into my third 20 years of life, it seems as if I'm riding the sweep second hand, constantly being pulled away from moments I'm not done with and pushed into a future I'm never prepared for....

I think it was Einstein who first said that the faster things go, the heavier (or massier) they get. Something similar seems to be happening to my brain as Time seems to accelerate.

The past (as Faulkner said) is never dead; it's not even past. It leaves (I now say) bits of shrapnel in us - memories that stick and accumulate and combine to create a sort of heaviness (or massiness) in our heads. When on their best behavior, these memories serve as a kind of ballast that gives us added stability as we go through rough times in the present. They also graciously teach us lessons and provide us with insights that third graders can hardly dream of. At their worst, however, memories can turn increasingly ugly and malignant until the day comes when we're so weighed down with them, we fall off the merry-go-round clock and Time races on without us....

In recent years computers and the Internet have allowed me to better organize, research, and perhaps understand the memories that I have. If nothing else, they have allowed me to better appreciate the kaleidoscopic light show that's been playing in the background all through my own personal little ride through Time.

Here now, for no reason in particular, is some of what I've seen....

This is an aerial shot of part of my childhood neighborhood, circa 1955 (just a few years before I was born). It's one of the very few aerial shots of Toledo I've ever come across and it just happens to have been taken from a spot almost exactly above the first home I can remember and lived in for 8 years. What are the odds?

Not that it matters, but that's the intersection of Central and Cherry there near the middle of the lower edge. Cherry is the street that's running left and right. I've been told that it handled nearly 30,000 vehicles a day back then while Central handled at least 10,000. Unless I'm even worse at math than I suspect, that works out to some 1,200,000 vehicles a month - and more than 12,000,000 every year. It's as if the entire population of Ohio streamed into and out of my immediate vicinity more than 8 times during the 1960s.

And I spent more time than I care to calculate watching that population go by, wondering where so many people were coming from and where so many people might possibly want to go.

Virtually no one ever stopped (or even slowed down enough) to tell me, so I'm left to wonder still....

This is a blow-up of the lower right corner. Regular eagle-eyed readers might recognize The House with The Tower that I wrote about (and shared pictures of) here and here.

I believe that the two houses to the left of The House had already been torn down by the time I was gazing upon this scene from the same angle (just 100 yards or so closer to the earth).

The duplex on Cherry St. directly across from The House is where I lived when The House was razed in 1974. The upstairs porch is where I stood to take the pictures of its demolition.

Here's what that duplex looked like circa 1945. By the time I moved in some 25 years later, the streetcar tracks had been paved over and the upstairs porch had been enclosed - two classic examples of mid-20th century progress for you to sit and drool over in awe now.

Although I was quite young at the time, I was the member of the family most responsible for our moving to this place. We needed to move (for a variety of reasons) and I noticed a For Rent sign in a lower window while riding the bus one day. I told my mother about it, but she blew me off, saying that the sign seemed to always be there and that this must mean there was something wrong with the place. I persisted, however, and eventually got her to at least call. It turned out that the landlord (who lived downstairs) also rented out other nearby property on less traveled roads and the sign was sometimes for them - but not this time. We soon toured the place and took it - for $110 a month. It seemed outrageously expensive at the time, but it was worth every dollar. It turned out to be the nicest place I ever lived in Toledo.

Here's a shot of it that I took using my silly little Kodak Instamatic camera in 1979. We'd moved away to another part of town 3 years before, but I'd convinced my brother-in-law to go back one more time just to check on things. As awful as this shot is, I think one can see that the upstairs porch is clearly enclosed. It's nice to have a photograph that shows that my memories aren't entirely the stuff of dreams....

The TV tower was for the downstairs tenant - not us. Although the landlord had promised to allow us to connect to it, that never happened. This might not have been a big deal in most cities, but Toledo's TV market was pretty much overshadowed by Detroit's. It seems like everyone else in town had an antenna to bring in the signals from The Motor City just 60 miles to our north. The TV tower right outside our dining room window allowed our landlord to even bring in Windsor's channel 9! We had rabbit ears that did only a fair job of bringing in our two local VHF channels. Until I learned more about Vietnam and Biafra, I thought this was one of the biggest tragedies in the history of the world....

This is another shot I took from the duplex porch. The House with The Tower would have been just to the left of the Marathon station if it had still been there. Since this shot was taken one Sunday morning in 1976, however, it had already been gone for 2 years.

What *is* there is the apartment I lived in for the first 8 years of my life. That apartment was in the upstairs of the red building to the left of the (right) Marathon sign.

I don't know how many people on earth may have had the privilege of living in a home that allowed them a clear view of their earliest childhood home, but - if you ever get the chance - I'd highly recommend it. It's like living "Our Town" and then getting to see it performed by other people. Which is to say it's like living life with the suspicion that it's all a play, then taking up residence in a place that effectively reduces your earlier residence to the status of a stage set.

(On rare occasions, the blue sky above that stage set was visited by the blimp that I wrote about here. Even though that blimp didn't have any lines, it always managed to steal the show.)

Here's another shot of my first home (along with some of its closest friends). I took it in 1979 at about the same time I took the one above of the duplex. I'm very glad I did now - it's one of the very few shots I have of its exterior - but at the time I wasn't so sure. I fully expected the guy in the Cadillac or Lincoln coming up behind us to stop and blow my head off. It was, shall we say, a troubled neighborhood. I just naturally assumed he was dealing drugs or a pimp or both, and I couldn't imagine him smiling for my camera. Somehow, I got away alive.

Not everyone was so lucky. I've since learned that on Feb 10 of that year, a 29-year-old woman was shot to death in the bar that occupied the first floor of my old home. Apparently she had accused a man of taking $20 from her, so the guy naturally started shooting.

Living to be 29-years-old seemed to me to be quite an accomplishment back then.

Now it seems much more like dying while walking home from the last day of kindergarten....

This is the only photo I've been able to find of the front of my first real home. It's supposedly from 1937, but I have my doubts. There was a hardware store downstairs for most of the time we lived there. When it closed in 1967, it had supposedly been run by our landlord for more than 40 years. He told me at some point that there had been a Kroger's there before; I found this proof of that claim just a few years ago. Supposedly the hardware used the same front door that Kroger's had. There was maybe a 6" high by 18" wide mini-door in the lower part of the heavy wood frame that some long-ago bread company supposedly had used to deliver fresh bread every morning before Kroger's opened. Small grocery stores like this apparently dotted Toledo every few blocks in the 1920s and 1930s when cars were relatively few and people actually walked to get what they needed. By the time I'd come along, they'd all been replaced by Super Markets and the old stores had been taken over by carry-outs, bars, and - at least once - a hardware. The bars seem to have lasted the longest.

For what it's worth, I'm sure the door on the right that we used for 8+ years is the same one that's in this photo. Faces may come and go in my mind but doors have a way of staying put.

The awning was long gone, however. But the ancient metal gearbox someone used to stick a handle in and turn to raise and lower the awnings remained. Maybe the metal frame remained, too, more or less permanently stuck against the building in the up position. Vestiges of another time, barely noticed while I lived there 50 years ago, and now suddenly popping up again in my mind as the merry-go-round of Time rolls on and on.

Alas, I have no idea who the shadowy figures in front of the next building may have been. But I hope they got to enjoy some of that fresh Kroger produce all the same.

There's a lot more I could say, but for now I'll just say this: Long before I sat and stared at The Big House on Cherry St. and realized that I would never get up into its attic and The Tower, I stood and stared at those attic vents above my own home and realized that I'd never get up into the space that existed above my very own head for most of my life. It couldn't have been much of a space, being far too short to stand up in, but I would have really enjoyed catching a glimpse of it all the same.

I came close once. The access panel was in the ceiling of the front closet of the other apartment, not ours, so coming close is pretty remarkable in and of itself, I guess. The lady who took me to The Moose Lodge (as recounted here) lived there at the time and (as I may have mentioned) kept an eye on me in her apartment for an hour or two after I returned home from school for the day. One afternoon, for some reason, we were in her closet, I saw the access panel above my head, and I asked if I could go up and take a look. Of course she said no. But it was at least a no coupled to an explanation. I can't quite recall what the explanation was now, but I think it had something to do with dirt and bugs, maybe even bats. That both further aroused my curiosity and repulsed me. I'd never thought about bugs and bats possibly living right above my head while I slept. I didn't entirely appreciate having to think about it after that. Maybe sticking my head up into that attic space would have calmed my nerves; maybe not. At this late date, it seems safe to say that I'll never know.

As luck would have it, I *did* eventually get into the attic of the house that was right across the street from this Central home of ours, but that's a story for another day. The merry-go-round of Time is now spinning me in a very different direction.

May all YOUR spins be happy ones.

(Just don't brag about them if they are.)

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Sociology Of Instant Fame

Before recent events in Arizona prompted me to reflect upon the way some tragedies become widely shared and deeply felt while others that seem quite similar or worse are ignored or quickly forgotten, I was reflecting upon the way some things on the Internet and/or TV go viral and become widely discussed while millions of other things do not.

This is something I've reflected upon repeatedly ever since my first days online and my encounter with Jeremy's Wallet and then the Dancing Baby. Wikipedia has a (hardly complete) list of some other examples that you can find here. I don't recognize most of them. Of those that I do recognize, I doubt that I would have recalled most without a prompt.

What inspired my latest bout of reflection was Ted Williams. I suppose everyone reading this is already only too well familiar with his story, but for those who aren't (and for those - including myself - who may have forgotten him when reading this in the future), Ted's the Columbus, Ohio homeless man who was noticed by a Columbus Dispatch reporter. Turns out that Ted has a wonderful radio voice and has fallen on hard times. The reporter posted a video of Ted on the Dispatch website, it got noticed and picked up by others, and now Ted is a huge media star, going from a quick gig with a local radio station to appearances on network newscasts and with Dr. Phil. Kraft Foods and MSNBC have hired him to do voiceovers. The Cleveland Cavaliers have offered him a job and a home. He's scheduled to be on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno soon.

Why? What exactly is going on here?

Yes, Ted has a beautiful voice - but so do lots of other people. And even the most beautiful voice in the world is hardly one of life's essentials. Most people have one, and even the harshest tends to be good enough to convey whatever information we need to convey. If Ted does, in fact, have one of the best voices in the world, is using it to sell Kraft macaroni and cheese really the best use to put it to? Should we be celebrating that turn of events or mourning it?

As is the case with so many things, I am left with far more questions than answers as each new detail of Ted's story emerges or unfolds. There are reasons why he ended up homeless despite his vocal talents - what exactly are they? There are reasons he didn't see his elderly mother for many years prior to their recent media-orchestrated reunion, too, and I'm betting that they aren't likely to be the sort of things appropriate to the sweet Hallmark version of events people might prefer. And what does it do to a person to go from the deep sea depths of obscurity to the mountaintop of national fame in a single day or two? How does one keep one's brain from exploding like an angler fish pulled up too quickly in a driftnet?

Ted's alleged altercation with his daughter last night in a Hollywood restaurant may be a hint of what's to come - I don't know. I hope not, but... as a general observation forged over several decades, it seems to me that fame can often be as much of a disaster for a person as homelessness.

All of which is rather beside the point for me right now as what fascinates me most isn't Ted's personal story or struggles (which in a very real sense will remain forever his alone) but the way we as a society have latched onto and elevated him above so many others.

The closest similar case I can think of is that of Susan Boyle, another anonymous ugly duckling who shocked the world with her hidden vocal talent. It seems clear that in both cases (as well as in the case of Jackie Evancho, the 10-year-old girl with the voice of a mature opera singer), the element of surprise derived from the wild incongruity between appearance and performance plays a large part in attracting attention and, ultimately, enormous fame. As I listen to Ted and Susan (and Jackie), I can't help but think about the many thousands of others who have gone to broadcasting school or Juilliard and spent many, many years honing their craft but have yet to draw much of a crowd (or made much money). Why should society so extravagantly bestow attention and wealth on the homeless or the frumpy or the child while denying those things to those who have the same talent but cultivated and developed it in a more traditional way?

It all reminds me of those old tales of angels hidden among us and Zeus disguised in human form and the king gone slumming as a peasant for a day.... There's the appeal of the unpredictable, of magic come down to earth, of the Wheel of Fortune landing on a positive number for a change - and of "Don't judge a book by it's cover" quickly morphing into "Don't judge ME by MY cover, because I, too, have unsuspected talents just waiting to be discovered!"

Perhaps that last is the key in this age of diminished expectations, of political gridlock, of wars without end, and of an economy that has stopped rewarding such traditional virtues as hard work, education, and seniority. Ted and Susan (among others) have, in effect, won the lottery, and it seems to me that Americans have a grossly exaggerated admiration for the lottery right now. Buying a ticket may give us a mere one chance in a billion of winning big, but those seem to be better odds than what a job with GM or investing with Goldman Sacks or regularly paying your mortgage are offering.

When someone like Ted or Susan wins big, *we* win big vicariously.

And they prove that you don't need to cure cancer or perfect cold fusion or stop global warming or get a sane gun control bill through Congress to win big - all you need is a voice.

A voice that others will actually stop and listen to.

In retrospect, Ted's story seems to be a new kind of Prozac for a new kind of depression.

Do you suppose the chemists at Eli Lilly are even now hard at work trying to squeeze it down into convenient tablet form?

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

The Sociology Of Tragedy

The shooting on Saturday of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others in Tucson is a tragedy.

Six people died (including a 9-year-old girl born on Sept. 11, 2001). Giffords remains in critical condition with a severe brain injury. "Tragedy" is too small a word to convey the magnitude of the pain and grief unleashed by one man with a gun, but it will have to do.

If I could do anything to undo this tragedy, I would do it. If I could have prevented it, I would have. If I knew of some way that I could personally prevent future tragedies, I would be spending my time now embracing it. Since none of those things is an option for me, I'm spending my time doing what I can do instead - trying to think about things in a non-banal way in the hope of moving at least one step closer to some sort of enlightenment.

The first question I'm struggling to answer is this: What exactly makes this a tragedy that merits so much news coverage?

The evening news broadcasts that I watched on both Sunday and Monday were devoted almost entirely to the events in Arizona. Monday's broadcasts seemed, for the most part, a repeat of Sunday's in that the basic story didn't advance much. The new elements that were added - the moment of silence that was observed, the interviews with eyewitnesses, the addition of sad theme music - seemed calculated to deepen our sadness rather than deepen our understanding. As so often happens with stories like these, I ended up feeling that reporters and others were wallowing in the tragedy rather than putting it in perspective and moving on to the other notable events of the day. That's *not* to say we shouldn't feel sad and angry about these events, and it's not to say that we should treat them like some sad movie to be forgotten as soon as we leave the theater. It is merely to suggest that we don't need to be completely submerged in a tragedy to appreciate its tragic nature - that indeed there comes a point at which the more we are submerged in it, the less likely it is for us to truly appreciate its place within the broader context of life on this planet.

In an attempt to better understand that broader context, I did some research. Among the things I found out:

----- More than 150,000 people die in the world every day. (Why did the deaths of six of those people on Saturday merit far more news coverage than the deaths of thousands upon thousands of others?)

----- More than 6000 Americans die every day. (Why did the deaths of six people in Tucson merit special attention? What exactly makes their deaths a national tragedy and the thousands of other deaths more or less nothing more than a personal or local tragedy?)

On page three of my newspaper today, I learned about a few of those other deaths in a *very* few words:

----- A Taliban suicide bomber killed two policemen and a civilian in Afghanistan's Kandahar province.

----- Western military officials now say that NATO forces accidentally killed three Afghan policemen in an air attack. (It's allegedly the first instance this year of "friendly fire" taking lives over there.)

----- Violence in Sudan has killed at least 30 people as that country veers ever closer to civil war.

----- A flash flood in Australia has killed eight people and left at least 72 others missing. At least four of those killed were children.

Why have none of these stories received even a fraction of the coverage accorded the Tucson tragedy? Why will the names and faces of the dead in these other stories almost certainly remain a mystery forever while the names and faces of those killed and wounded in Arizona seem destined to be replayed and replayed until they can never be forgotten?

There *are* reasons, of course - but not all of them are pleasant to contemplate.

Americans tend to be far more interested in the deaths of other Americans than they are in the deaths of foreigners. Maybe the citizens of every country are more interested in the deaths of their fellow citizens - I don't know. In any case, I'm struck by the basic parochial nature of tragedy. And it leaves me more than a bit uneasy because it seems to say that a death in MY family/state/country/ethnic group/whatever is far more important and worth far more coverage than a death in whatever group YOU happen to belong to. That seems to me to be nothing more than an irrational prejudice.

It doesn't help matters that Americans tend to be so uninterested in the deaths they cause around the world. It's as if we have these boxes that we put others in, and each box insulates us that much further from their suffering and tragedies. The "Foreigner" box is a big one. So is the "War" box - you know, war is hell, and accidents happen, and the ends justifies the means, and so on, and so forth. The "Far Away Places With Strange Sounding Names" box is pretty big as well, though even easy to pronounce names and places that are as close as Canada are unlikely to merit much news coverage here no matter how terrible the tragedy associated with them might be.

Of course the "Natural Disaster" box is pretty big, too. It allows us to depersonalize things very quickly - to substitute statistics for individual human beings. Being social creatures, I suppose it's natural for us to be more concerned with the murderous actions of even one of our fellow humans and less concerned with impersonal forces we can't influence even though they're far deadly, but still.... Why, objectively speaking, should we feel worse about the shooting of 20 Americans than we feel about the deaths of 100,000 Indonesians in a tsunami? Shouldn't we instead feel 5000 times worse about the latter?

It seems to me that the human mind is simply not up to the task of dealing with reality in an appropriate way.

Or perhaps I should say that it's not up to dealing with *modern* reality in an appropriate way. It might have been a fine match for the small bands and tribes that provided the context for 99.9% of its evolution, but now - all of a sudden, thanks to modern technology - a brain geared towards dealing with a few hundred people over the course of its lifetime is having to deal with thousands, or millions, or billions. Is it any wonder that strange things happen?

(Of course the same basic thing can be said about human anger and aggression. Such emotions and the actions they inspire may have conferred a survival advantage in an age when fists and rocks and spears were the deadliest weapons we had at our disposal; they seem far less likely to convey a survival advantage in an age of assault rifles and nuclear bombs.)

I could go on and on in that vein for a long time to come but I trust that my basic point has been memorably driven home even without my having to dwell at length on the fact that Americans tend to see assaults on young, telegenic, white females as being far more tragic than assaults on most others.

Let us move on.

The one thing that seems to me to possibly justify the extensive coverage being given Saturday's rampage is the way it seems to represent an assault on our system of government. Closely coupled to this is the fear that it might not be an isolated incident but a harbinger of worse things to come.

In other words, as tragic as the events in Tucson may be in and of themselves, what really gives them the power to stir up our emotions is what they appear to represent to millions of people.

Do they, in fact, represent these things?

I'm not convinced that they do.

As near as I can tell at this point, the rampage seems to have been committed by a lone nut. He doesn't seem to have been motivated by any coherent political agenda or ideology, still less does he seem to have been part of an organized conspiracy. Pinning the blame for his actions on Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck or anyone else seems to me to be a very unfortunate - and very unnecessary - stretch. Palin & Co. have enough very real faults for us to point out and criticize. We don't need to add or invent others. The harsh right-wing rhetoric that some suspect may have led to Saturday's shootings would merit serious attention and learned rebuttal even if such rhetoric turns out to be completely innocent in this case. Why should it take an actual violent incident to motivate us to recognize, counter, and deflate the many problems and fallacies and ugly imagery associated with Rush Limbaugh, many members of the Tea Party, and others?

Seeing a child playing with matches requires action even if that child hasn't set a fire yet. Blaming that child for a fire caused by poor wiring distracts us from dealing with our wiring problems.

If a villain simply must be identified before we can let this tragedy go, perhaps that villain ought to be our country's unfortunate way of identifying and treating the mentally ill.

We're a country that closed our asylums a long time ago. So-called "community mental health care facilities" were promised as replacements; I'm still waiting for those promises to be fulfilled. If anything, things seem to have gotten worse in recent years.

Here are a few words on this subject from Time magazine:

In most states, including Arizona, it's predictably difficult to detain someone involuntarily due to mental illness. If he is not deemed an imminent danger to himself or others, as determined by a judge, in almost all cases, treatment will not come without the person in question admitting that they are ill and need help. Even then, there is no guarantee that help will come readily or swiftly.

"What you have is an obvious need for more capacity in the mental-health system," says Dr. Ken Duckworth, a Harvard professor, psychiatrist and medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI). A need for more capacity is certainly true in Arizona. According to a 2005 report from the Treatment Advocacy Center, a nonprofit mental-health organization, the state had 5.9 publicly funded psychiatric beds per 100,000 people, compared with a national average of 17. In addition, NAMI gave the state's mental-health system a C in 2009, a step up from its D grade in 2006, but with vast room for improvement....

In 2009, NAMI gave just six states B grades, while 18 got Cs, 21 got Ds and six got Fs. None received an A.

Are things likely to change for the better soon?

I doubt it.

In my own state of Ohio, the Republicans who have just been swept into office are apparently about to whack away at both Obama's health care plan and Medicaid, meaning that the many poor and mentally ill people who reside here are going to be even less likely to get the care and attention they need and deserve in the next few years than they are now.

At the same time, those Republicans seem ready to further relax Ohio's already less-than-stringent gun regulations.

And as for more federal or state dollars going for research into the causes of mental illness - well, what do YOU think the chances are of that happening in an era of trillion-dollar deficits?

Where does this leave us?

I'm not exactly sure - but it doesn't seem to be a particularly good place.

I suppose every nation in the long run gets the culture and society and government it deserves.

A nation that prefers to wallow in sadness when tragedies occur rather than adequately expend the time and money and energy and resources it takes to make future tragedies less likely to happen seems to me to be a nation that's performing at far from optimum levels.

If that lackluster performance results in still more tragedies in the days and months and years ahead, why should anyone on earth be surprised?

At The Intersection Of Sunset And Flock

5:07:46 PM - Jan 10, 2011

5:07:50 PM - Jan 10, 2011

Monday, January 10, 2011

Ten Days With Kurt & Phil

It's become a January tradition for me to read a work of contemporary fiction. I'm not sure why. Maybe after experiencing yet another year of more or less troubling non-fiction, my mind is ready for a little vacation.

For several years this has meant reading something written by Nicholson Baker. I like Baker for a number of reasons, but after pushing and pulling my mind through his The Everlasting Story of Nory last year, I was definitely ready for something else.

That something else turned out to be Kurt Vonnegut's Armageddon in Retrospect, a collection of 12 pieces on the subject of war and/or peace that he'd written over many years but had never been published. I realized that it might well be yet one more attempt to suck the last little bits of profitability out of a dead man's oeuvre, but I decided to risk it anyway.

The fact that it's a rather short book with rather large print helped.

It wasn't great, but I'm glad I read it. For some reason, Vonnegut has always been easy on my eyes even when he's spouting crap, and this collection was no exception - except for the shamelessly manipulative short story entitled "Spoils." If he had pushed it just a tad further, I might have been able to enjoy it as an absurd parody of a wildly improbable O. Henry story. As it is, I think it's the only Vonnegut piece I'm sorry I read.

The best part of the book came early for me. A copy of the last public speech he ever wrote includes the claim that anthropologists have concluded that we human beings are only supposed to live 35 years. Allegedly that's how long our teeth last without modern dentistry. I'm not convinced that this claim is true, but it might be, and - as we all know - if something *might* be true and it gives us pleasure to believe it, no one has any right to burst our bubble - right?

At least not during the first week of a new year after yet another year in which all the things that are true and right have left us once again with a terrible hangover.

Why do I enjoy believing that it's true? Well, for one thing, it sure kicks the hell out of the Bible's claim that our allotted time on this planet is 72 years. That's like Ford or GM claiming that their cars are built to last nearly three-quarters of a century and then having an expert mechanic tell you that your Pinto or Impala has cavity-prone spark plugs that won't get you to the half-century mark. Haha, all you devout Judeo-Christians! Hahahahahaha!

The bigger reason that I enjoy thinking his claim is true has nothing to do with any of that, though. It involves the fact that I've already lived past 35. Which means I've exceeded not only my warranty period but my expected lifespan. I've crossed the finish line and can now idle or coast as the mood strikes me, secure in the knowledge that every additional moment my engine is still running is sheer bonus time. All ye critics of man who think I ought to be doing things better or more often are way off-base - you should be standing in awe and endlessly complimenting me for the fact that I'm still here doing anything at all!

Having been put in the mood for such literary enlightenment by Kurt, I decided to flex my eye muscles and try a second work of fiction - Philip Roth's The Plot Against America.

You might remember Roth as that fellow who was profiled on CBS's "Sunday Morning" last year. He unapologetically came out as an atheist in that interview. He was also touted as a possible Noble Prize winner. Having read and survived his Portnoy's Complaint years ago, I decided to see what sort of words he's been stringing together more recently.

I'm only about 60 pages into The Plot Against America but it's already very, very clear that Roth is a very different sort of writer than Vonnegut. While Kurt veers from the pithy aphorism to the grand, overarching theme, Roth writes much more in the style of the traditional memoirist: Lots of little details that add verisimilitude and slowly add up to Something Big.

Although The Plot Against America revolves around the mercifully fictional premise that a pro-Nazi Charles Lindbergh was elected president in 1940, the story seems firmly rooted in the author's real life experiences as a Jew growing up in New Jersey. It's pretty serious but fairly straightforward stuff that offers us one more perspective on the same years Woody Allen (born in New York 1935) covered in Radio Days and Neil Simon (born in New York in 1927) covered in Brighton Beach Memoirs. Any detailed analysis of the three will probably mention somewhere along the line that Roth (born in in Newark in 1933) is the one who is looking back and *not* smiling.

I don't think I'll be spoiling the book for anyone by saying that the first 60 pages talk about stamps and stamp collecting at some length. I collect stamps, too, in the same sort of half-assed way that I do most things meant to sop up a few more hours of unwanted consciousness, so I knew what Roth was referring to in a way I never do when Melville or Stevenson or anyone else refers to the various types of sails and masts (genitals?) on a ship. Authors of sea-going adventures over the years could have saved me a lot of time and grief had they begun their works with "And now for a few hundred pages of wanton gibberish" and been done with it.

Roth's discussion of something I'm somewhat familiar with (and that I was even somewhat familiar with at the same young age as the narrator of the novel in 1940) prompted me to ponder how I might write about the same subject.

I decided that while I might have started off with a Dickens-like paragraph or two of straight journalistic description, I'd quickly lose interest in that approach and veer off on a tangent - and then another.

I don't find anything intrinsically interesting about stamps. They have a certain surface appeal, thanks to their color and design, but such things can only hold my attention for so long. The age and historical aspects of a stamp might hold my attention for a while longer, but in the end it's hard to avoid the fact that, when all is said and done, all I'm really staring at is a little piece of paper that some stranger's tongue may have touched at some point. I have to be in just the right mood for that to intrigue me for hours on end.

If I ever attempted to write about my stamps and my stamp collecting the way Roth's narrator does, it wouldn't be too long before I shifted to a description and then a discussion of the adhesive on the back. Soon I'd be off to research and share everything there is to know about the nature and history of adhesives.

Nicholson Baker might do the same. Being me rather than Baker, however, I'd soon abandon this approach as well and start pondering aloud the essentially bizarre nature of adhesives and stickiness.

Some things are sticky, some things aren't. What's the difference? What's the cause of the difference? How many years must we exist on this planet before we can more or less reliably predict what is and isn't sticky? Was the nature of stickiness different in the past? How might it be different in the future? If a bandage is pulled rapidly off a wound in the forest and there's nobody around, does anybody scream?

You know, my cup of coffee is never sticky when I drink it in the morning. But if I spill some on the table and let it dry a bit, it can become *very* sticky. Where did the stickiness come from? (Albania?)

If I let that same spilled coffee dry entirely, a hard film replaces the stickiness. What force magically exorcised that stickiness from my life? (Might I be able to bottle and sell that force to those about to go out on a blind date?)

The world is a weird place.

Stickiness is part of the weirdness, yet we take it for granted every time we get up and try to walk out of a movie theater.

Would licking the floor of a movie theater make it more or less sticky?

If licking it made it more sticky and the US Postal Service issued a stamp commemorating movie theater floors, would we know which side to put on an envelope?

But of course I'm being silly. All stamps are self-stick stamps now. Someday soon people will think licking the back of a stamp as weird as licking the back of a Post-It note - or maybe a refrigerator. (There's no telling with some people.)

All of which thoughts and comments I freely offer to you as a quick and easy way of distinguishing me and my writing from Philip Roth and *his* writing.

Maybe I'll offer it to the Noble Prize committee, too - just to guard against them accidentally awarding me the prize intended for him.

Heh - wouldn't THAT be embarrassing for everybody?

In fact, I think I better forward this to them right now.

IF I can find a stamp and then somehow avoid becoming hypnotized by its backside....

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Another Perspective...

... this one with the Crane of Destruction hovering in the background:

Many thanks to whoever might have taken this shot.

And many more thanks to everyone responsible for allowing me to find it on the Internet.

I don't know if this was taken the same evening that I spotted my old landlord wandering around the front lawn of this, his boyhood home, but close enough.

He would have been in his 70s at the time.

I thought about leaving my house, crossing the street, and saying hi to him, but... it didn't seem like the kind of moment he would have wanted to share with a teenager.

If it turns out that all of time rewinds and repeats, over and over again, however, and we're free to make at least a few different choices each go-round, I suppose I would go stumbling over during at least one of those replays of history.

Maybe he would have shared a few treasured memories with a young prospector of treasured memories.

As it is, those memories now seem gone forever - at least as far as I'm concerned.

Whatever good and bad times may have unfolded in The House (and there must have been many over the decades that it existed) are almost certain to always remain a mystery to me at this point.

And as much as I might now enjoy looking at a few of the photographs that must have been taken of those times as they unfolded around and inside The House, I suppose they're more or less irrelevant to me. The House was never about the people who lived in it, as far as I was concerned, but about Itself.

Its big, looming Self - the stately Mansion on the Hill, the sturdy delineator of Interesting Spaces larger and more numerous than I myself ever hoped to live in, an undeniably physical connection to the era of the streetcar, and the Keystone Cops, and the First World War (among many other long gone things).

People change moment to moment, they contain unknown (and apparently unknowable) depths, they come and go (so quickly!); but houses and buildings and structures of all sorts are always there, firm, and (mostly) unchanging, their innermost realms easily capable of being entered and explored (or captured and revealed by any decent architect with a drafting table).

At least until they're not....

A reader asked me recently "What did they tear down this house to build? What's there now?"

The answer is that they tore it down not to build anything but only to get rid of it.

In fact, very little of that entire block remains today.

Even the hill is gone.

See for yourself:

The duplex I lived in across the street is gone, too - replaced (along with the hill *it* stood on) by the parking lot of a Family Dollar store.

The last time I went by, it took me half a mile to realize that I *had* gone by.

I don't plan on going back anytime soon.

As Gertrude Stein once allegedly said about Oakland, California, "There's no there there."

Was there ever a there there to begin with?

If it wasn't for the handful of photos I have, I'd be inclined to dismiss it all as a dream or an indecipherable fable.

I might anyway - just to be ornery.